The Gujarat Sultanate (14th-16th centuries)

Salaam Walekum and welcome to ‘Saga In Stone’. Among the regional styles of Islamic architecture, there is one style which stands out among the rest- Gujarat. A style Islamic to its very core. Yet, a style completely different from any example of Islamic architecture anywhere in world.

Jama Masjid, or Jumma Masjid, as it is called locally due to the Friday prayers, was erected in about 1322 at the ancient and prosperous seaport of Bharoach. This mosque is one early outstanding example of this school.

Ala ud-Din Khalji established the Muslim rule in Gujrat in 1298. The governors of Delhi sultans ruled it for more than a century. In 1407 Zafar Khan, the Tughluq governor of Gujrat broke away from the Delhi Sultanate and declared himself independent.

By the time Jumma Masjid was erected, Islam was flourishing in the coastal state.

This modest and rather bare structure has a quiet charm to it .The proportion of the front colonnade, chajja and domes are just right, giving it an understated elegance.

The façade has a liveliness, difficult to resist.

Though lacking the mastery over details that characterised the Gujrati monuments of a later era, Jumma Masjid was an exciting monument, a sign of things to come.

These were still the early days for Islamic architecture in Gujarat. Though a couple of other interesting monuments had been built, two of them being Jumma Masjid at Cambay and the mosque of Hilal Khan Qazi at Dholka, Islamic architecture in Gujarat was yet to come in its own. The golden days started when Sultan Ahmad Shah I laid the foundation of Ahmadabad.

To make sure that the city was going to be auspicious for the king and his populace, the ceremony was conducted by the king’s guru Sheikh Ahmad Khattu Ganj Bakhsh and four Ahmads of the realm known for their great piety, along with five qalandar faqirs. These faqirs were disciples of the great Saint Nizam Ud Din Auliya. The Sultanate was young and restless. The time was ripe for the creativity to flow unhindered. Creativity which went on to transform the young city into one of the largest capital cities in the whole of Asia, a commercial hub whose prosperity has not diminished with times.

This magnificent gateway stands today in the middle of a crowded commercial district. It is called Teen Darwaza, for self evident reasons. Thousands of people pass it daily. But nobody stops to admire this forgotten masterpiece.

There used to be a time, it is said, when the Mughal emperor Jahangir and his beloved Noorjahan watched grand processions from the balconies of this gateway, of course ,it was lined with trees in those times. Palms and tamarinds, oranges, and citrons, the beauty of these trees surrounded this beautiful gateway. Today, even the idea of those relaxed times seem an impossibility in its crowded surroundings. Built in 1414 by Ahmad Shah, it served as the main gateway to his Bhadra Fort.

Its archways are equal in height but have different widths. The central opening is 17-½ ft wide while others are 13 ft.

An interesting inscription is installed here which was probably added much later- in the early 18th century. It is the order of Chimanji Raghunatha, a maratha subedar, about determining a daughter’s right of accession to her father’s estate. The idea of equality of the sexes existed here two centuries before the word ‘feminism’ was even coined in the west.

It is said that in the days of Maratha rule, this gateway became something of a good luck charm. The Maratha governors used aim five arrows at one of its beams, and then decide whether a particular measure would be successful or not, depending on their success in striking the right target.

This is Jumma Masjid, one of the largest and most beautiful mosques in India. It was inaugurated by Ahmad Shah on March-11, 1411, and took 13 years for its final completion. One look at the mosque and one can rest assured that these were thirteen years well spent.
It is in fact amazing that a structure could provide so much peace when it is surrounded by one of the most crowded commercial areas in the city.

Jumma Masjid is an imposing structure. An extensive courtyard, a grand three storeyed prayer-hall on the west, pillared corridors on the other three sides. Sadirvan, the fountain for ritual washing before prayers called wazoo, is elaborate. This elaboration has been recently built to beautify the already existing pool.

The façade has an impressive treatment. The carvings on the minarets are extremely intricate. And as they say, God lies in detail.

However, these minarets have been reduced to being buttresses of the central arch, particularly since its upper storeys were destroyed in the disastrous earthquake of 1819, also known as the death knell of the minars. In this earthquake a lot of minarets were uprooted from various mosques across the city.

These minarets were a part of the great and mysterious tradition of the shaking minarets of Ahmadabad. Many mosques across the city had minarets, where if one was shaken by force, the other minar will also show consonant motion. But the rest of the building will not show any impact of the tremors.

The mosque provides an interesting example of the lighting arrangement in the prayer-hall. The central compartment has been raised to three storeys with galleries supported on pillars. These galleries are then enclosed by perforated stone-panels. But lighting the hall well was not the only raison’d aitre of this scheme. It served a few other purposes too. The balconies provided a sufficiently private zenana apartment for the ladies who were barred from performing namaaz in the mosque. This tradition of a separate enclosure for women, though rare in Gujrat and most other places in the country, was quite prominent in Bengal and Jaunpur. Also, the open grills below the dome made the central bay an open shaft generating cool currents in the air, so essential in the hot and humid climate of Ahmedabad.

The systematic arrangement of the domes, the jaalis in rich geometrical and arabesque patterns, and the three hundred tall slender pillars in the prayer-hall- all these features turned Jumma Masjid into a magnificent symphony. A deep sense of the divine made it immortal.

The Gujarat style touched new peaks under the patronage of Mahmud Begda, the Firoz Shah Tughluq of the Western India. He erected a mosque and tomb in memory of Sayyid Usman, which became a significant contribution to the architecture of Gujarat. This mosque and tomb complex is one of the earliest examples of rauza tradition in Gujarat. The Rauzas were a complex where the tomb and its mosque were two different buildings complementary in design.

Sayyid Usman, a renowned Muslim Saint, was the son of Sayyid Burhan Ud Din, the founder of the sect of the Bukhariya Sayyids. He died in 1458, and immediately after Mahmud Begda built this memorial

The mosque is one of the first examples where minars are transferred from the centre to the corners.

The tomb is now despoiled of its perforated stone-screens that once enclosed the pillars. It is a well-proportioned square building.

Today, it is regularly visited by thousands of devotees, who come here to get their wishes fulfilled and exorcising evil from the possessed.

Mahmud Begda can be termed as one who was fuelled by an inner urge to build. Apart from the mosque and tomb at Usmanpura, he founded the cities of Mustafabad at Junagadh, Mahmudabad near Ahmadabad and Muhammadabad at Champaner. His smaller creations are too numerous to be elaborated here.

His wife created the mosque and tomb of Rani Sipari, regarded by Fergusson “as one of the most exquisite buildings in the world” It has some of the best stone work, not just in Ahmadbad, but the entire country.

Rani Sa’brai, popularly known as Rani Sipari, wife of the Sultan, built this mosque in the memory of her son Prince Abu Bakr Khan the heir apparent to the throne. He was executed by administering poison in his wine by the order of the Sultan himself, when found guilty of trespassing into a private house.

This mosque does not have the grandness of Jumma Masjid. But there is a perfect balance between decorative and architectural features, between its body and its soul. The minarets with it’s open pillared prayer-hall. are a picture of harmony.

The Minaret, as an architectural form, is probably derived from the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt, which was completed in the 200's BC. According to another version, a Syrian tradition of marking the corners of a building by four short towers was the beginning of the ‘Minaret’ tradition. This theory gains further credence because the great mosque of Damascus in Syria is one of the earliest mosques with minarets attached.

During the time of the Holy Prophet, the call to prayer was made from the rooftop. This practice probably had its origins in the Jewish practice of blowing the ram’s horn or the early Christian use of a clapper to summon the worshippers.

Addition of a minaret allowed the muezzin to reach a larger and more distant audience than possible from any other structure. However, the minarets at Rani Sipari have more ornamental than pragmatic value.

Symbolically, a single minaret resembles the cipher "1” which symbolizes unity and oneness with God.

One interesting architectural feature of this mosque is a relative absence of arches. Except for the Mihrab and a side doorway, no other arch has been employed in the mosque.

This mosque is all about richness of detail. The elegant and jewel-like carvings, and of course the exquisite design and sculpture of its minarets. Even the rear portion of the mosque is not shorn of beauty, it is as if each detail was so planned as to take your breath away.

The tomb stands on a raised platform on which exquisitely carved stone screens are placed.

The main grave was originally encased in marble. Now it has been made over in plaster.

Like every good thing, the glorious era of the Ahmadabad school of Indo-Islamic architecture also came to an end. Mehmud Begda died in 1511. Though the sultanate lived for another seventy years but its architecture was not of the same calibre.

It was in this otherwise architecturally inconsequential era that the Gujarat school of Indo Islamic architecture came up with the masterpiece which became its signature - the great Jaali wali Masjid or the Sidi Sa’id’s mosque.

Constructed in 1572-73, this small but magnificent mosque represents the concluding political and architectural phase of the Gujrat Sultanate.

It is also world-famous for its unique perforated stone window-screens or jaalis.

Sidi Sa'id Sultani was a distinguished noble during the reign of Sultan Muzaffar Shah III. It is said that he rose from being a slave to the position of power. His tomb is also located here.

These jaalis adorning the upper zones of the side and back walls are filled with various floral and geometric patterns. Two of these jaalis are of particular beauty. Fergusson said, “it is probably more like a work of nature than any other architectural detail that has yet been designed, even by the best architects of Greece or of the middle ages.”

Structurally also, this mosque indicates a marked departure in the composition of its prayer-hall. The flat roof of the prayer hall is laid not on pillars but entirely on arches. Another interesting feature is that three different systems – brackets, the diagonal beam and squinch – have been employed when anyone of the three would have done the job just as well.

Britishers did their best to destroy this monument. They even housed their administrative offices in the mosque. It is also said, that when they went back, they took three jaalis with them. One of them, a lotus shaped beauty is on display at the British museum.

The Ahmadabad school was one of those schools of Islamic architecture where the synthesis of Hindu and Muslim and craftsmanship had left its imprint on almost each and every monument. So while the typical Gujarat mosque had its mihrabs, mimbar and the minar, it also had a profusion of brackets, lintels, the ring dome and an extensive usage of Hindu idioms and motifs.

Sidi Said’s mosque marked the end of this grand era and the era of independent sultanates in Ahmadabad. In the very year that this masterpiece was built, the Mughal Emperor Akbar annexed Gujrat. Another glorious era came to an end. An era of beautiful carvings, fascinating jaalis and graceful minarets.

The glory of these monuments is still alive, reminding visitors of the past that was. Next week, come with us to a small town in the UP hinterland and see some unique mosques which escaped the fury of a tyrant. Shabba Khair.

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